All the Stuff You Want to Know
Hi beautiful wonderful people of the world! It's so unlike me to wait so long into my time in a new place to start spitting words (and also, mostly, photos) into the cyber stratosphere, but I'm finding it increasingly difficult to synthesize all of the thoughts that have burrowed themselves deep within my brain. These thoughts have begun churning in new and exciting ways with each conversation and each encounter I've had over the past few weeks, which is AWESOME - but also incredibly terrifying. So I'll start by keeping it simple. Here are some of the things I've been asked in preparation for / since landing in Cambodia, and the answers:
What exactly are you doing again? I am one of 74 amazing, fabulous, and totally incredible human beings going out into the world to do great and wondrous things in this year's YAGM program. YAGM - Young Adults in Global Mission - is a program through the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America that fosters global accompaniment. I talk a little bit about the details of YAGM and why I chose to do it in my last blog post. I was lucky enough to spend a week in communion with all of the program participants (plus some program alumni and program support staff) during a week of intention in Chicago the last week of August. Indescribably sublime conversations about race, privilege, culture and faith abounded, both in structured program times and in late night jaunts out and about in the city. I can't tell you how moved I was by this group that someone somewhere deemed me capable of being a part of (thanks Heidi, Steph and Brit!)
LOOK AT THESE COOL INSPIRING HUMANS OFF TO MAKE THE WORLD A LITTLE BRIGHTER!
Are you going to Cambodia by yourself?
Sorta. There are 7 YAGMs (including me) who are going to be serving this year in Cambodia. Ryan, Andrew, Haley, Lindsay, Elise, and Savannah are already proving to be some solid traveling compatriots and our humor (or rather, our sass) melds well together. As some of you may know, this is the first year that the ELCA has sent YAGMs to Cambodia - so I'm lucky that this group seems pretty adventurous and ultimately very "come-what-may." We've already encountered some pretty serious "whoops" group bonding moments, but each has made me so thankful I'm serving with them. Side note, I have links to all of their blogs on my "YAGM CAMBODIA" page. That said, I'll be living and working at a site placement all by myself. The nearest volunteer, Lindsay, is about an hour away (as the crow flies, it's a lot shorter - but there is something to be said about the state of many Cambodian roads). We're actually the two closest volunteers in the Cambodia program. But we won't see each other for a while - after we arrive at our host sites we're required to stay there for at least a month before visiting one another or returning to Phnom Penh (the capital).
My People: Savannah, Haley, Andrew, (me), Ryan, Elise, and Lindsay at orientation in Chicago. We look a little sweatier now.
Okay, Cambodia. That's pretty far away right? Oh yeahhhhh it is. Cambodia is located in South East Asia between Thailand and Vietnam. We spent approximately 22 hours in the air on our way to Phnom Penh. This doesn't include waiting times in Chicago or Seoul. We lugged 7 extra carry-ons during this journey as well: motorcycle helmets to keep our craniums safe on all those moto-taxis we're (maybe?) going to have to take.
A few of us on the plane. Not pictured: seven motorcycle helmets, a disgruntled flight attendant (we're a little loud), and Ryan asking to get up to use the bathroom about ten thousand times.
How long are you there again?
I arrived in Cambodia on August 28, greeted by Adam and Sarah Erickson (the co-country coordinators of the Cambodia Program). We're currently still in Phnom Penh, doing in-country orientation (heavy on the language learning) until September 21st when we begin at our host sites spread out across the country. My program lasts through July 15 - after that, I'm free to go home or continue to travel in the region. My plan right now is do the latter, but it's hard to know how I'll feel about returning home after a year! Maybe I'll be so good at Khmer that I'll decide to stay forever! (Just kidding mom, I promise). Khmer... I've heard that word before. Didn't something pretty terrible happen in Cambodia a while ago? Is it safe there now? If people know anything about Cambodia it's either a) Angkor Wat (known for its ruins of the largest religious complex in the world, deriving from what is arguably the brightest period of Khmer history) or b)the existence of the Khmer Rouge (probably the darkest time in Cambodia's history). I promise (to both you and myself) that I'll be doing a whole post on the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities that were committed by the Khmer Rouge government during the late 1970s very soon. In the meantime, however, you can be satiated in knowing that while the effects of the Khmer Rouge are still poignant in Cambodian society today and affect a lot of the way people approach everything in their lives, it is very much a safe place to visit. The only safety issues I have any major concern with are those you would have in any country in which the majority of the population lives at a relatively low socio-economic status: bribery and petty theft. Part of my program's goal of living simply should help me alleviate having to encounter much (if any) of either of those things.
Prayer beads offered by visitors at the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh in memory of those were brutally murdered during the time period known as the Khmer Rouge. I promise to have a blog post with lot more information on the Khmer Rouge and the effects the late 1970s still have on Cambodian society today.
What's the weather like? Hot, right?
And then some. The approximate temperature (in Fahrenheit) of Phnom Penh when we landed at midnight was about 89 degrees. This is the cool season, so temps hover in the low-to-mid 90s. I've been told you don't get use to the heat. So all the sweat in all the unthinkable parts of my body (not to mention the beautiful sweat rash I'm developing on my forearms) looks like it's here to stay.
That said, it rains a lot here. Which is funny, because apparently Cambodia's in a pretty serious drought (okay, not so funny - there are some serious issues with the food supply and increased cost of agriculture that most people are dealing with). But when it does rain, it rains hard, and I for one thoroughly enjoy the few moments of cool air and playful puddle-jumping!
Jumping for joy because it is RAINING!
Do you speak the language? Lol. Absolutely not. But that's why we're in in-country orientation for so long. I have language class almost every day, and will even have it this coming weekend when we travel across the country to Siem Reap to see the temples at Angkor.
Some numerical facts to help you understand how it's going: 650: The approximate number of words/phrases we've learned in Khmer in the past 12 days.
3: The actual number of words/phrases I've gotten the hang of in Khmer: "Hello", "I don't know," and "I want candy" (I subscribe to the idea that it's vitally important to learn how to translate an Aaron Carter hit song in any language you're encountering).
In all seriousness, our teacher Long Di has been extremely patient with us and we're slowing starting to get the hang of it. However, my minimal confidence in the language was completely shattered when I spent a good twenty minutes during one of our recent conversation dinners with local university students arguing over my pronunciation of the word "delicious".
Here's my name in Khmer. I have no idea how to read it, we haven't learned the alphabet yet.
What about the food. Will you have to eat bugs? GUYS. I cannot tell you how joyful I am that Khmer cooking has come into my life. I could sit and eat rice and noodles, fish amok, beef lom luk and spring rolls (fresh and fried) everyday forever (and most likely will, so that's good). We took an all-day cooking class last weekend learning to cook some Khmer staples (spring rolls, sweet chili and peanut sauce, banana leaf salad with lemongrass, fish amok, and mango sticky rice), and I have gained a new appreciation for each delectable thing that enters my mouth. And yes, there are definitely some things here that you wouldn't find on a typical American menu. Since I've been here, I've tried new fruits like mangosteen and jackfruit, had some ants on my beef curry, and even had some coagulated pigs blood in my soup. There is a man down the street who sells whole roasted frogs, so that's on my to-eat list. I've only briefly seen the deep-fried tarantulas, crickets, and cockroaches in one stall that I passed on a tuktuk, so jury's out on whether or not they'll become a diet staple while I'm here.
(Attractively) trying street food on our first day in-country. Egg something.
Eating ants! Yay for my first Cambodian bug! There are cockroaches everywhere, so I wouldn't be surprised to find one of those on my plate soon.
Shrimp on crackers? We still don't really know what this was.
Has #CambodiYEAH caught on yet? I'm working on it. Pastor Heidi (who runs the YAGM program) used it once on Facebook, so I'm pretty sure that means the hashtag is alive and well.
A year is a long time. Aren't you going to be bored? Can you at least talk to people back home? It's okay. I brought a harmonica. And yesterday, I bought a hammock. Part of this year is very much to get me to slow down from my stress-filled, over-connected life and focus on just being here, in the moment, appreciating all the things God can offer in a simple life. And yeah, odds are very good that I will not have reliable internet access in my village and will not have anyone my own age to speak in English with, but I'm mentally preparing myself for good days and bad days and finding ways to feel fulfilled in all the emotions I'm going to have. I'm embarking on a crazy journey this year, but ultimately I'm so excited to be here and I know that this is exactly where my feet are supposed to be.
I do, of course, miss you all and especially thank each and every one of you that has sponsored a day of year. There is some serious God-magic happening on the ground here, and I can't wait to continue to share it with you all. Your kindness, support, and generosity rests heavy on my soul and inspires me to be very intentional about this time in Cambodia: to both shape and be shaped, to save and be saved, and, most importantly, to live in communion with all I encounter.
Peace and blessings, Jessica